Marie Curie and Her Legend

multiple exposure of Marie Curie

A TENDENCY TO ROMANTICIZE HER OWN LIFE characterized Marie Curie from girlhood on. In letters she wrote as a teenager she sometimes presented herself as a tragic heroine. Similarly, in her 1923 biography Pierre Curie and in the autobiographical notes appended to it, she depicted herself and her husband as participants in a heroic struggle. According to the self-portrait she propagated, Pierre and Marie Curie, in their pursuit of scientific truth, had to overcome not only poverty but also the indifference and even hostility of the French establishment.

“My plans for the future? I have none....I mean to get through as well as I can, and when I can do no more, say farewell to this base world. The loss will be small, and regret for me will be short....”
--letter of Marie Curie to her cousin Henrietta Michalowska, December 1886

still from 1943 film Madame Curie
The romantic--and only partially true--legend that Curie helped create of her heroic early struggle was further spread by the 1943 film Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson.
model of lab facilities
The facilities in the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry shed, a model of which is shown here, were barely adequate, but the Curies also had the use of lab space, raw materials, and personnel provided by industrialists.

While not actually false, this image of herself and Pierre as solitary laborers in search of knowledge is only part of the truth. For example, in her biography Pierre Curie, Marie devotes paragraphs to describing the miserable old shed in which she and Pierre made their significant discoveries. What she does not tell the reader is that from early on in their work the Curies received significant assistance from collaborators in industry. For example, the gross treatment of the first ton of pitchblende, donated to the Curies by the Austrian government, was performed in the factory of the Central Chemical Products Company, which marketed Pierre's scientific instruments. Far from laboring entirely on their own, the Curies were allied with the French radioelements industry that their research did so much to develop.

As for government research grants and salaries, Marie and Pierre were treated as well as most good scientists of their day. The real problem, Marie and her friends insisted, was that science as a whole got far too little funding.

“There was no question of obtaining the needed proper apparatus in common use by chemists....Sometimes I had to spend a whole day mixing a boiling mass with a heavy iron rod nearly as large as myself. I would be broken with fatigue at the day's end.” --Marie Curie, Autobiographical Notes

The romantic image of the struggling scientist had already been established a generation earlier by Louis Pasteur and others. While reflecting real difficulties, the image also served as a propaganda tool. At a time when Curie hoped to secure funding for her Radium Institute, her emphasis on the difficulties she faced as a scientist helped not only to arouse public sympathy but also to raise significant philanthropic donations and put pressure on the French government. If more money could be won for basic research by emphasizing certain aspects of her past and downplaying others, a larger truth would be served--scientists everywhere could do far more for humanity if they had better funding. “All civilized groups,” Marie wrote, “have an absolute duty to watch over the domain of pure science...and to provide [its workers] with the support they need.”

� 2000 - American Institute of Physics